bluegrass can produce quality fairways in the Midwest if it is
not mowed too short.
track of research
vary widely across the Midwest, complicating the choice of
fairway turfgrass species.
epidemics of gray leaf spot have weakened the popularity of
perennial ryegrass, long a preferred fairway species in many
parts of the Midwest.
are available that accentuate the strengths of various fairway
the cool, moist regions of Scotland where golf began, selecting a
fairway turf species is not difficult. Fine fescues, bentgrasses
and other cool-season turfgrasses are native there and very well
adapted to the climate. They generally perform well at low mowing
heights with minimal maintenance.
In the cold winters and hot
summers of the Midwestern United States, however, grasses that are
truly adapted to fairway conditions are rarer, and no single
species stands out as the region's ideal fairway turfgrass.
Before the 1980s, Kentucky
bluegrass (Poa pratensis) was the most-used species in
Midwestern fairways. During the past two decades, many courses
switched to perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) and
creeping bentgrass (Agrostis palustris).
There is no clear choice for every
Midwestern situation, however. The best choice depends on course
budget, climate, water availability and other regional factors.
Kentucky bluegrass is one of
the best-adapted, general-use turfgrass species used in the
Midwest. It has excellent color and texture and forms a very dense
turf. High-quality, affordable seed is readily available for many
a preferred fairway species in much of the Midwest, perennial
ryegrass performed poorly in 1998 after gray leaf spot disease
struck many golf courses. Notice the healthy, disease-free
Kentucky bluegrass sod around the sprinkler head.
Kentucky bluegrass's extensive
complex of underground stems (rhizomes) gives it an outstanding
recuperative capacity after divoting and other damage. Highly
cold-tolerant, Kentucky bluegrass can be found throughout Canada
and into Alaska. As a fairway grass, it is relatively inexpensive
to maintain and is still the grass of choice on lower-maintenance
Midwestern golf courses.
Kentucky bluegrass's relatively
poor shade tolerance can limit its use. Its biggest disadvantage
on modern fairways, however, is its intolerance of low mowing
heights. When mowed below 1½ inches, most cultivars lose
density, and annual bluegrass (Poa annua) slowly becomes
the dominant turf. The mowing height for modern fairways is well
below this minimum height for Kentucky bluegrass, so old bluegrass
fairways are often converted to more mowing-tolerant species.
Some factors that have pushed
Kentucky bluegrass off fairways include the patch diseases -- such
as summer patch (Magnaporthe poae) -- which produce a
typical "frog-eye" pattern in turf. Other species are
less susceptible to these diseases.
north to south, and from east to west, climates vary dramatically
across the Midwest.
Another problem is seeded Kentucky
bluegrass' slow establishment rate. Spring-seeded Kentucky
bluegrass establishes very slowly, and its seedlings perform
poorly in summer. It is often not fully mature until August or
Cultivars developed in the late
1990s may bring a resurgence of Kentucky bluegrass use on
fairways. Absolute, Award, Nuglade, Rambo, Rugby II, Total
Eclipse, Unique and others are marketed for use on fairways mowed
as low as ½ inch.
These new cultivars have looked
promising in cooler regions, but they have yet to stand the test
of time in the Midwest. Blends were established on many courses in
the region in 1998 and 1999, and they'll be monitored over the
next few years. At Iowa State University, we established a
high-maintenance Kentucky bluegrass fairway trial at ½ inch
in September 1998, followed by a nonirrigated trial at ½ inch
in September 1999. These studies will require three to five years
In years past, perennial
ryegrass could hardly be considered a turfgrass, and certainly not
a desirable fairway grass. Breeding and selection, however, have
led to the development of more than 100 excellent turf-type
perennial ryegrass cultivars.
These cultivars have excellent
color, texture and density. Their growth rate and appearance are
so similar to Kentucky bluegrass that the two are quite compatible
in mixtures. Common types of perennial ryegrass are still
available, but they are not suited to fairway use and should be
Perennial ryegrass is known for
good wear tolerance, an important characteristic in fairways. The
biggest advantages of perennial ryegrass, however, are its rapid
germination and establishment rates. When damaged, perennial
ryegrass can be re-established in a few weeks, whereas Kentucky
bluegrass and creeping bentgrass may take months to bring back
into play. Perennial ryegrass also has excellent tolerance of low
mowing and is much more tolerant of fairway conditions than most
Kentucky bluegrasses. It is also far less susceptible to the patch
Perhaps perennial ryegrass's
biggest advantage is its tolerance of the herbicide ethofumesate
(Prograss), which provides excellent postemergence control of many
Poa annua biotypes. Kentucky bluegrass and creeping bentgrass
are more sensitive to the herbicide, complicating P. annua
control in these species. Perennial ryegrass is not damaged by
ethofumesate at recommended rates, and it can be seeded into
treated areas immediately after application. Ethofumesate on
perennial ryegrass fairways provides the most successful control
of P. annua of any method, short of soil sterilization
with methyl bromide.
doesn't look hardy in winter (or fall or early spring, for that
matter), but zoysiagrass can survive cold temperatures.
Perennial ryegrass has
shortcomings. The bunch grass has no rhizomes and no stolons, so
recovery from divots is very slow. Extensive overseeding is a
standard part of its maintenance. Its growth rate is similar to
Kentucky bluegrass's through most of the season, but
superintendents report that it grows rapidly in the spring and
early summer. This can be controlled with a growth regulator such
as Primo (trinexapac-ethyl), but this adds to maintenance costs.
Although patch diseases are
generally not a problem, perennial ryegrass is much more
susceptible to Pythium blight and red thread (Laetisaria
fuciformis) than is Kentucky bluegrass. Pythium can be
particularly devastating on ryegrass fairways in high-temperature
conditions, and the cost of fungicides can make perennial ryegrass
an expensive alternative to Kentucky bluegrass in warmer parts of
Another serious disease is gray
leaf spot (Pyricularia grisea). This disease does not
appear to be a problem on Kentucky bluegrass or creeping
bentgrass, but in ryegrass, it can be worse than Pythium.
In the Midwest, gray leaf spot has generally been limited to the
southern, warmer sections, but in 1998, it destroyed many ryegrass
fairways in Nebraska, Iowa and northern Illinois. This greatly
increased expenditures for fungicides, and many superintendents in
the region began considering alternatives.
is supposed to weather the cool season with little damage, but
winter dessication by drying winds can dramatically injure
fairways if irrigation is withheld during a winter drought.
Fortunately, the problem did not
repeat itself in 1999. Only time will tell, however, whether gray
leaf spot will be a recurring problem in the central Midwest.
Winterkill limits perennial
ryegrass use in the northern Midwest. For example, ryegrasses
winter well in southern and central Iowa, but ryegrass fairways
are often severely damaged in the northern counties' winters. In
Minnesota and Wisconsin, perennial rye gets little use.
Although many superintendents
regard perennial ryegrass as an excellent choice, winterkill and
increased spending on fungicides may make other grasses more
bentgrass grew on very few Midwestern fairways because such large
expanses of bentgrass were thought to be too expensive to
maintain. By the early 1980s, however, player expectations had led
to increasing maintenance costs on existing Kentucky bluegrass/Poa
annua fairways, so bentgrass became a viable option. Today it
is the primary fairway species on higher-budget courses in the
can't handle cold winter temperatures very well, as shown here in
Among cool-season grasses,
creeping bentgrass is one of the best-adapted species, producing
excellent fairways at a ½-inch height of cut. It is
stoloniferous, and its recuperative capacity is excellent. Its
texture and density are outstanding, and its color provides a
beautiful contrast where darker-colored bluegrass grows in the
Creeping bentgrass also provides
an excellent playing surface, and one of its biggest selling
points has been player acceptance. Many public courses that
converted in the '90s advertise their bentgrass fairways to lure
golfers who will pay a premium to golf on what was once the grass
of private country clubs.
Creeping bentgrass has some
disadvantages. Maintenance costs can be high because of its
susceptibility to Pythium blight and brown patch (Rhizoctonia
soloni). Clippings are usually picked up, which adds to labor
costs, and extensive aerification is usually a part of standard
maintenance. Thinning is common in cleanup rounds and in other
heavily trafficked areas. Its cold tolerance is good, but it's
very susceptible to desiccation in the dry, windy winters of the
western Midwest. Its establishment rate is slow, particularly in
spring, and fairways lost to desiccation may require months to
grow back in, compared with weeks for perennial ryegrass.
Although its stoloniferous growth
habit renders an advantage in recuperation from damage, a
well-knit turf may surrender very large divots that require
topdressing and seeding for rapid recovery. These divots give
Poa annua a competitive advantage.
Poa annua is very
competitive with creeping bentgrass at fairway mowing heights and
may easily become the dominant species on older fairways in some
regions. Ethofumesate can provide some control, but it can also
damage bentgrass. Lightweight mowing, clipping removal,
cultivation and other cultural practices to encourage bent and
discourage P. annua can provide some success, but P.
annua remains a fact of life on creeping bentgrass fairways.
The term "fine fescue"
refers to a group of very fine-textured grasses in the genus Festuca.
They include creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), chewings
fescue (F. rubra commutata), hard fescue (F.
longifolia) and sheep fescue (F. ovina).
In the cooler, wetter regions of
the world, such as the British Isles, fine fescues form a dense,
uniform turf under low mowing heights and are often found in the
species mix on golf course fairways. In the Midwest, their
sensitivity to heat and drought, particularly at low mowing
heights, allows little use for them on golf courses. All are bunch
grasses, with the exception of the rhizomatous creeping red
fescue. Yet creeping red fescue cannot match the recuperative
performance of Kentucky bluegrass and creeping bentgrass.
A few cool locales in Michigan and
Wisconsin boast fine fescue fairways, but in most of the Midwest,
other species are a better choice. Their real Midwest niche is in
unmowed roughs. This is particularly true in shade, although they
are also adapted to full sun in much of the region. They provide
an attractive, low-maintenance alternative to Kentucky bluegrass
roughs and are increasing in use each year.
Annual bluegrass is such a
successful weed that it is often maintained as the dominant
species on golf course fairways. In many climates, it can provide
reasonably good playing conditions. In much of the Midwest, it is
a major problem, and if superintendents could kill it, they would.
Midwestern superintendents often refer to their fairways as being
a mix of Poa annua and another species, such as "bent/Poa"
or "Kentucky bluegrass/annual bluegrass." Perennial
ryegrass and annual bluegrass fairways are less common because of
the effectiveness of ethofumesate against P. annua in that
Poa annua presents many
problems. It can easily be lost to winterkill, and it's
susceptible to a variety of fungal diseases. In the spring it
produces many seed heads that disrupt turf uniformity. Poa
annua's biggest drawback, however, is its life cycle. A winter
annual, it germinates in late summer or fall, lives through winter
as a mature grass, produces seeds in the spring and then simply
dies in the heat stress of summer, as would be expected of a
Some biotypes of annual bluegrass
may also live through the summer as a weak perennial, but even
these are easily lost in heat-stress periods.
The latest trend in Poa annua
research is the development of new, improved types that are more
tolerant of stress and provide a better playing surface than wild
types. Although this research has been aimed primarily at
developing cultivars for greens, it may also result in new grasses
for fairways, at least in climates where P. annua is
particularly well adapted.
In dry parts of the Midwest,
in places too cool for warm-season grasses, Fairway crested
wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) and western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum
smithii) are suitable on fairways, if irrigation is
unavailable. Irrigated Kentucky bluegrass is still a better choice
in this region, but these grasses provide a possible nonirrigated
Fairway crested wheatgrass is a
bunch grass, whereas western wheatgrass has short rhizomes. Both
species are relatively coarse-textured and develop a turf with a
lower density than Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass.
Although wheatgrasses were common on low-maintenance fairways in
the '60s and '70s, their use has decreased in recent years, and
most new courses in drier regions now use fairway irrigation. The
species still provide low-cost alternatives where water is
Weeping alkaligrass (Puccinellia
distans) is a gray-green, tufted bunch grass that can provide
reasonably good-quality fairway turf. This cool-season grass has
relatively good heat and cold tolerance. Its use is limited to
situations where sodium levels are so high that other grasses will
not survive. Sodium can come from sewage effluent water, deep
wells or natural soil concentrations, particularly in the West.
Weeping alkaligrass is much more
tolerant of sodium than Kentucky bluegrass and creeping bentgrass
and can be a substitute where necessary. Sodium is rarely found
uniformly over an entire golf course and is often found in low
pockets where it can kill less-tolerant grasses. Weeping
alkaligrass is often successful in these areas. It is a bunch
grass, and overseeding is important to maintain a uniform, dense
Although the Midwest is
generally a cool-season region, some warm-season species are used
on fairways in the southern and western sections. In southern
Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, bermudagrasses (Cynodon
species and hybrids) can be used, although their sensitivity to
cold temperatures may result in significant turf loss some years.
Zoysiagrass (Zoysia japonica)
is better adapted because of its greater cold tolerance. Properly
managed zoysiagrass can produce outstanding fairways that are the
envy of golfers from the central and northern region of the
Midwest, who, after visiting Kansas or Missouri, often ask their
local superintendents why they cannot have zoysiagrass on their
tees and fairways.
Even though zoysia can tolerate
very cold winters and will survive as far north as the Canadian
border, it goes dormant as soon as temperatures cool in the fall
and does not green up until well into the spring. This greatly
limits its appeal outside the southern Midwest.
dactyloides) is for drier parts of the Midwest. It does not
provide the turf quality of zoysiagrass or bermudagrass, so these
species are preferred where sufficient moisture is available. The
advantage of buffalograss is its tolerance of hot, dry conditions.
It is sometimes used on nonirrigated fairways in western Kansas
Although the blades of
buffalograss are relatively fine-textured, its thick stolons and
swollen nodes give it a coarse-rough texture. It also lacks the
density of bermudagrass and zoysiagrass at lower mowing heights.
Recent breeding and selection have produced several improved
cultivars, and in the future it may be more widely used on courses
in the drier regions of the Midwest.
The past two decades have
brought many new grasses and cultivars, and this trend is likely
to continue. The choices available to the superintendent should
increase. The rapidly expanding field of biotechnology, which is
already yielding developments such as grasses that are tolerant of
nonselective herbicides, should bring many advances in the next
It will be an exciting time to be
involved in turfgrass management. These rapid changes will also
mean that continuing education will play an even greater role in
the superintendent's career.
- Christians, N.E. 1989. Kentucky
bluegrass for low-maintenance areas. Grounds Maintenance
24(8):49, 50, 96.
- Christians, N.E. 1990. Fairway
conversion: The annual bluegrass to rye to bent approach. Golf
Course Management 58(8):36-38.
- Christians, N.E. 1996. Body
punch: Desiccation hit the nation's midsection hard this spring.
Golf Course Management 64(7):36-41.
- Christians, N.E. 1998.
Fundamentals of turfgrass management. Ann Arbor Press, Chelsea,
- Couch, H.B. 1995. Diseases of
turfgrass. 3rd edition. Krieger Publishing Co., Malabar, Fla.
- Smiley, R.W., P.H. Dernoeden
and B.B. Clarke. 1993. Compendium of turfgrass diseases. 2nd
edition. The American Phytopathological Society, APS Press, St.
Nick Christians, Ph.D.,
specializes in turfgrass science in the horticulture department at
Iowa State University.